Ep. 085: Oka-dera: The Temple on the Hill

Monk Gien and his pet dragon

Local practice does not always bow to officialdom. The main Catholic church in my city is called Holy Rosary Parish. But when you get into a tricycle (a motorcycle with a covered sidecar, a common form of public transportation here), if you say,"Take me to Holy Rosary Parish," you probably won't get much more than a confused look. But "Take me to the Big Church" will get you there every time.

Such is the case with the temple in Asuka officially named Ryugai-ji, the Dragon-Covering Temple. Just say Oka-dera--"the Temple on the Hill"--and you're golden!

So yeah: Let's go to the Temple on the Hill in this episode of--


"Thar Be Dragons"

Marauding dragons are a common enough feature in European folklore. They destroy crops, horde gold, and kidnap maidens. That's a lot of damage for a mythical beast!

The pond lies just behind the pillars in the foreground (left); Gien wrestles with the dragon--though the scripture says he conquered it by prayer (photo of plaque from Wikipedia)

What's even more interesting is that East Asia is not safe from these figments, either. Case in point: a neighborhood in Asuka, one of Japan's ancient capitals, which we visited in Episode 067. It seems that a dragon would buzz people as they attempted to raise their crops. Some died quickly from his attacks; others died slowly from starvation, as they were too afraid to work the fields.

The kaisando contains the statue of Gien (right; photo from Wikipedia)

Along came that typical superhero of 7th-century Japan: a Buddhist monk. This one was named Gien Sojo, a priest of the Hosso (Yogachara or "Consciousness Only" sect), and through his intercessory prayers to Kannon, the dragon was killed "in mid-swoop" as one writer puts it. He plummeted into a small pond on the property, where the priest capped his body with a large stone. Hence the temple's official name, Ryugai-ji: "The Dragon-Covering Temple." The pond (they say) is still there. If the lid (presumably now the floor of the pond) begins to shake, a bad spell of weather is in the offing.

An alternate version of the story says that the dragon was causing damage by bringing too much rain. (Dragons have power over rain and weather, as well as bodies of water, in East Asia.) He fell into the pond alive (hence the need for the restraining "lid"), and in times of drought, the stone is purposely shaken to waken him and cause rain. The whole story is flipped?

"Kukai Sculpted Here"

American tourist establishments (and realtors) were once accused of ahistorical come-ons, the epitome of which was boasting that "George Washington slept here." The parallel in the world of Japanese Buddhist temples might be, "Kukai Sculpted Here." It seems the work of Kobo Daishi's hands is found in half the temples in the country, or at least this part of it.

The hondo with its elevated roof contains the clay statue of Nyoirin.

Oka-dera, too, claims that its clay statue of Nyoirin ("Wish-Granting") Kannon was carved by the master--or not carved, really, but shaped, as this one is made of clay, and said to be the largest clay Buddhist sculpture in Japan (another possibly dubious claim). It is also, with the Great Buddha of Nara at Todai-ji and the Eleven-Faced Kannon of Hase Temple (which we'll visit next week) one of the "Three Great Buddhas of Nara."

A not-so-elegant statue of Kukai (Kobo Daishi), who allegedly slept and sculpted here

It was once colorfully painted, but today is drab (and frankly a little ugly). Nevertheless, at over 16 feet tall, it's impressive. Never mind that at over 1200 years old, it slightly predates Kobo Daishi (though there's no reason to believe he didn't study here, as is also claimed).

Another cool legend: It's said to be made of clay from India, China, and Japan, retracing the steps of Buddhism's travels from its place of origin to the Land of the Rising Sun.

The Temple Today

The hondo (rear) is approached from the side; before it are the romon and the kaisando.

Founded in 663, true to its advertising Oka-dera is located on a hill, less than a half-mile from the Ishibutai Kofun we visited in Episode 026. I have read that it was built on the grounds of nearby Haruta Jinja, a Shinto shrine located down the hill; but also that the location was once the site of a palace (unlikely, as all the palaces I've seen have been down on level ground.)

The hole-y bell (though I can't see any)

We enter by the 1612 Nio-mon ("Two Kings' Gate"), famed for the two lions, a tiger, and a dragon carved under the four corners of its eaves. (The tiger/dragon symbolism is discussed in Episode 058.) Far off to the right stands an early 19th century shorodo (bell tower) with an oddly damaged bell. It's well known that, late in World War II, Japan was running out of metal for munitions. (Do you know about Hachiko, the loyal dog in Tokyo featured in a crappy Richard Gere movie? The nation even melted down the memorial statue of the dog outside of the train station in Shibuya, where I worked for a couple of years. The statue we see today is a replica!) So there are seven holes in Oka-dera's bell--test holes made by the Japanese Imperial Army, they say, to see if it was suitable for use in weapons manufacture. Hmmm...

The three-story pagoda as seen through clouds of white azaleas

Further still to the right, across a small mountain road from the main compound, is a pretty three-story pagoda. The original had collapsed in a 1472 typhoon. This replacement was built from 1984-1986, on the 1150th anniversary of the death of Kobo Daishi. (Oka-dera today is a temple of the Shingon Sect, which was founded by Kukai.)

Back in the main compound, a romon ("two-story gate") stands next to the kaisando ("Opening the Mountain Hall," the technical name for the founder's hall), which contains a statue of Gien. Just beyond that is the hondo (main hall), noteworthy for its raised roof. Using a series of what look like lattices, the roof is raised off of the main structure to give an illusion of height. It's younger than me, built in the late 20th century--but it houses the ancient statue of Nyoirin Kannon.

The path to the okunoin ("Inner Sanctum"), with the statue of Maitreya inside

Passing the hondo, we see the pond in which the dragon dwells, and toil up a series of rough stone steps climbing the hillside past statues, small structures, and a spring to reach the okunoin, sometimes inelegantly translated the "back temple," but perhaps better translated the "inner sanctum" or even "holy of holies." This one is a small, excavated cave or grotto housing a statue of Maitreya, the "Buddha of the Future" often seen as the Laughing Buddha in China (see Episode 003). The cave is a little deep, and requires stooping, adding to its mysterious atmosphere. (I love caves!)


And that, as I am wont to say, is that. Until next time, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!


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In the next episode: On our last day in Ningbo, China, we'll take a day trip to Qita-si, the Temple of the Seven Pagodas.